Canberra’s climate change brain drain becoming critical

Public sector agencies are losing climate change expertise thanks to the government’s resistance to a strong policy response to the issue, it was revealed at Senate Estimates on Tuesday.

The government has allowed the Climate Change Authority’s board to atrophy to the point where it risks losing quorum if another member leaves, while Australia’s foremost agricultural research body has lost most of its climate change workforce, including its dedicated climate change section.

Only five of nine Climate Change Authority’s board positions are currently filled following a series of resignations over the past year and a half. Filling those roles is up to the government, which has not yet acted to replace any of those who have left.

The CCA is charged with undertaking reviews and making recommendations to government on emissions reduction targets and other climate change-related policy areas.

Discussing the membership of the board at Senate Estimates, CCA chair Bernie Fraser told the Environment and Communications Committee: “there aren’t too many of them, we’re down to a bare minimum at the moment … people have left over the last 18 months for various reasons and they haven’t been replaced.”

The government had promised to abolish the CCA until it reached a deal with the Palmer United Party in October last year to save the organisation by funding an 18-month inquiry into whether Australia should have an emissions trading scheme, despite the government remaining opposed to carbon pricing.

Asked why the board members hadn’t been replaced, acting CEO Shayleen Thompson responded that it was “a matter for the government.”

“So the government has made a decision not to have those replaced,” said Labor Senator Anne Urquhart.

CCA appointments are due to end mid-2017.

It was also revealed that the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences, ABARES, had lost most of its climate change expertise in recent times, despite bureaucrats acknowledging climate change remained a significant issue for the agricultural industry.

“We don’t have climate change specialists in ABARES”, executive director Karen Schneider told the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee.

“That hasn’t always been the case,” she said, adding that ABARES no longer maintained a climate change “section”.

“The area that was once called climate change has reduced over the past year or so and we do not provide the same sort of research on climate change issues as we have done in the past … we have one or two people who provide advice on current climate issues and we have people in other areas who incorporate climate change analysis into their work.” Officers were unable to state how many employees had previously been assigned to work on climate change-related issues, and took the question on notice.

Department of Agriculture deputy secretary, and current acting secretary, Phillip Glyde explained the fall was a result of other agencies were no longer requesting climate change-related work of ABARES.

“It receives funding both from within the department but also so-called ‘section 31 earned revenue’ from other departments and we’ve had periods of time where we’ve developed some pretty deep expertise in relation to, say, climate change or water science, essentially reflecting the issues that are looming or coming up or are of current importance to various industries,” said Glyde.

“A lot of that research is being driven by this investment from other departments … The Department of Climate Change, the Department of Treasury contracted us to do a fair bit of economic modelling in relation to climate change. As the demand for that has dropped off, then we no longer have the ability to hang onto some of those specialists.

“So ABARES’ budget has fallen over the past several years … certainly since I was the executive director of ABARES it has declined quite dramatically, and that’s simply reflecting the fact that there’s not the demand for the research from these other organisations.” The organisation’s current total revenue is around $33 million, the committee was told.

A 2012 ABARES report stated “Climate variability is a major risk for agricultural production, and this risk is likely to increase under future climate change”.

Asked by Labor Senator Don Cameron whether climate change remains a problem for primary industries, Glyde responded “it’s the same issue it always was”.

Cameron was unimpressed by the revelations of fewer resources dedicated to climate change, saying: “As I read it now, we’ve got no specific function within the pre-eminent research organisation for agriculture on climate change even though that organisation in 2012 said it was a major risk.”

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